By Zach Collier
Dave Zimmerman is the owner and operator of the Provo-based Noisebox Studios. A BYU alumni, he graduated from the school’s Media Music program (now the Commercial Music Program) in 2004. Last year, Noisebox Studios built a brand new location from the ground up. The new studio opened its doors at the beginning of this year and has remained a bustling center of activity ever since. Reach Provo got to speak with Dave Zimmerman about his career, how he built up Noisebox Studios over the years, and what it takes to get a good mix.
So Dave, you own and operate Noisebox Studios. How long has the studio been open for, and how did it first get its start?
Noisebox Studios officially opened up 10 years ago, July of 2006. That was the point where it became a full time career for me. However, I had been recording bands and artists and my own projects for many years before that. Previous to opening Noisebox Studios, I had been working at Tuacahn and realized that although live sound was fun, my real passion was in recording. I moved up to Utah and, after submitting demo reels to every studio I could find (with no response), I decided to open Noisebox Studios. At this point, I had already begun accumulating quite a bit of recording gear and I had a band anxiously waiting to start recording their second album with me.
Did you start dabbling in recording in your teen years, or did a lot of your knowledge come from your time at BYU?
The first sequencing I ever did brings me back to my elementary school days. My parents had a Casio keyboard and I would spend quite a bit of time playing with the different musical styles and sounds on that keyboard.
You may find this interesting. When I was in middle school, I had made the commitment and was absolutely determined that music was going to be my career. I took a career test and it told me that I should be a recording engineer. However, all of the information I could find from those working in the field at the time was very negative. It appeared to me that all recording engineers hated their job. So I decided that wasn’t the path for me. My focus from that point forward was to be a composer/sound designer for video games.
I also fell in love with sound in general. I really wanted a surround sound system and after saving up $150, my parents agreed to help me purchase a surround sound system for our home for my 16th birthday. I would haul that system around with my groups of friends to social get togethers and parties.
Being a composer was still my focus when I got into BYU and entered the Media Music program. However, I quickly realized that many of the talented artists in the program found the software and hardware frustrating to use and I absolutely loved the technical side. I ended up collaborating with quite a few people and began building my own rig to work with artists and bands out of my apartment. Having my own rig also opened up opportunities for me to do some work for Guy Randle for Drums on Demand editing drum loops.
Eventually a friends’ band approached me and asked if I could record them. I didn’t turn down the challenge and ended up purchasing a cheap Behringer mixer, a few SM 57’s, an SM 58, a handful of Oktava condensers, cables and some stands and went to work. I still laugh when I think about recording live drums in our 2 bedroom-4 man shared apartment at Canyon Terrace. I recorded the drummer in the living room and likely annoyed all of the neighbors in that tight apartment complex. The guitarist had a JCM 800 which was also extremely loud. Recording that band lead to recording many other bands.
Did you feel like your time at BYU was worth it then? Did it provide something you couldn’t have gotten anywhere else?
Many people ask me my view of schooling when it comes to a career in the recording industry. I know it is a very touchy subject with many people. I am grateful for my schooling. It has opened up many opportunities for me that I couldn’t have had otherwise. I made some great connections which have led to many opportunities including my part time position to teach music production private lessons (Synthesizer Lessons) at BYU. I especially appreciated the ear training, music lessons, arranging courses and opportunities to play in large and small ensembles.
However, with all of that said, nothing is more important than experience. Some people may think that an education is a home run to being successful in the industry and that just isn’t true. You will not graduate with a list of studios looking to hire recording engineers and producers that are college graduates. You have to find the opportunities and experiences and put your best effort into everything you do. When opportunities are available, people primarily care about your skill level and what you can do, much more than your degree.
What is your skill set, and how did you develop it?
Being able to make it in this industry has required me to develop many skill sets. Some of which are: Engineering, Mixing, Mastering, Producing, Arranging, Songwriting, Studio Design, Teaching, Technical Troubleshooting, Social Skills, Marketing, Accounting, Web Design, Time Management, and many others. I’m not passionate or great at all of these skill sets, especially the ones that are more business oriented, but they are skill sets that I have been required to develop in order to survive and I’m always working on improving them. However, I am absolutely passionate about all of the skills that involve recording and music production and feel like those are my strongest skill sets.
Tell us the story of the new Noisebox Studios. How long did it take you to build the new facility?
My new studio is a dream come true for me. Previously, I had worked full time with my studio being the basement of my home for almost 10 years. While I have been able to do great things with that space, home studios have their challenges and it was difficult for me to convince clients that I was as serious about recording as they were about their music.
I feel like this new space finally begins to represent my inner commitment that I have always had towards my career and it is much easier for clients to take me seriously.
Building this space also represents tons of sacrifice from me and my family. To save the money to be able to build this space required tons of sacrifice. In order to save, our family really had to cut back. We have never had a cable bill, our cars have always had well over 200,000 miles. I didn’t own a regular cell phone until the iPhone 5 came out (on Cricket) and we literally ate tons of rice and beans. But little did I realize that this was only the beginning of the sacrifice it would take. It was clear that building the studio properly would require us building our home along with it from the ground up. Once finances were lined up and we were able to move forward, it was clear that we would have to be the builders (overseen by a licensed builder, Shane Cook) of our home and studio and do tons of the labor. The year of building was by far the most stressful year of my life. We literally sacrificed blood, sweat and tears to make it all come together. It was a roller coaster of complete ups and downs.
Who did you work with on the design? What features of the studio are you most proud of?
The studio studio was a collaboration of several designers. Aaron Merrill got me started on the design and then JH Brandt worked with me on perfecting it especially in the areas of isolation and some of the acoustic treatment. The final aesthetics and acoustics final were influenced by a combination of several studio designs I admired.
The studio space has been a huge upgrade for me and has allowed me to really step things up. My two favorite things are the sound isolation and the silent HVAC. I love that I can be recording drums and other loud instruments and hear exactly how the microphones are picking things up and adjust phase and mic placement to capture the instruments the best way possible. You can only do this when you have great isolation. I also love that I can leave air conditioning and heating on even during the most sensitive recordings.
What has the response to the new space from clients been like?
Clients have loved the feel of the new studio and have been able to work more effectively and creatively in the new space.
That’s great to hear! Lately you’ve done a lot of work with GENTRI. What’s that process been like? Some of the tracks you worked on with GENTRI even charted, right?
I’ve been lucky to work with many amazing artists and bands at my studio and each scenario has been unique and fun in their own way. Working on GENTRI’s material has been amazing. GENTRI’s music producer, Stephen Nelson, began working with me about 3-4 years ago on several projects including Madilyn Paige, Brittney Snyder, Heather Shepherd, and others. Working on GENTRI’s project has definitely been fun and challenging. They have tracked the orchestra and vocals with Stoker over at Soularium and I have been able to do do the drum and guitar recordings as well as all of the mixing and mastering. Their first EP charted in a few places, but hit number 2 on the Billboard chart under Classical Albums. The Christmas album charted at 14, but hit #1 for its single, “What Child Is This?/I Wonder As I Wander.” Rise charted number 3.
Their songs had the highest track counts of any projects I have worked on and have been some of the hardest to mix because of the many layers these songs have. I’m often mixing the full orchestra (Strings/Brass/Woodwinds/Percussion), Rhythm Section (Bass, Drums, Guitar), Choir, 3 strong tenor voices, and whatever else the track needs. But the challenge makes the project that much more fun for me.
You mentioned Madilyn Paige and Brittney Snyder. What other local artists have you worked with before? Do you have any particularly fond memories?
I have worked with artists like Mimi Knowles, Tiffany Alvord, Gardiner Sisters, The Strike, Amy Whitcomb and her band The Whits, The Brocks, Brumby, Nick Johnson, Caleb Blood, Nick Johnson, Paul Harmon, Kindle Creek, Wired for Havoc, Nate Noble, Kimber Packer, DateNight, and many other amazing people. Everyone has left me with great memories, stories, and great experiences. I recently got together with some of the members of the first band I ever recorded, Dissonance, and we jammed out on some tunes and it was very nostalgic for me.
You’ve got quite an expansive selection of gear at your studio. How long did it take you to accumulate it all?
The gear and software I have has been collected over 15 years of reinvesting back into my business whenever I can. Although, my approach is probably considered more minimalistic in comparison to some of the other studios in town. I don’t have hundreds of microphones or pieces of gear, but I know my gear very well and I know how to work with it to get the sounds I need.
Do you have a favorite gear distributor?
I don’t really have a favorite gear distributor. I often just look for the most affordable way to obtain the gear I have. Sometimes that is from a reliable retailer like Sweetwater, Vintage King, or Guitar Center, and other times it is from places like EBay and Amazon. I also factor in whether I need great support in case I do want to return it. In those cases, I almost always go with Sweetwater.
In your opinion, what are the elements of a good mix?
A great song. [Laughter] Seriously though. If the song isn’t a great song, it is difficult to mix. For example, if the chorus isn’t strong, or there isn’t a great hook, or if the song form is weird, it becomes difficult to know what to highlight and what to make strong. If the message of the song is unclear, it is difficult to know what timbres and effects are going to best enhance the emotion of the song.
The more songs I have worked on, the more I am convinced that great recorded songs are ones where effort the planning stage has been emphasized. If the planning stage is done well, then the recording stage goes well. If the recording stage goes well, then mixing goes smoothly and mastering is just icing on the cake. Possibly the most important part of the planning phase is making sure your song is the best it can possibly be.
Besides that, I’d argue that balance/level between instruments and between frequencies is the most important. It is easy to get too caught up in too many plug-ins and less important details and miss the importance of adjusting levels. I spend most of my mixing time these days fine tuning automation.
In closing, one final question. You’ve been around the Provo music scene for quite some time and have gotten to work closely with a lot of artists who have come and gone. What are your overall thoughts about the Provo music scene? What’s positive about it, and where do you think it has the potential to go? What would it take to get there?
It’s amazing! There are so many talented people here in Utah. Many of the talented people don’t even get their fair chance to be in the spotlight. I have great confidence that Utah and especially the Utah Valley Scene have great potential to become one of the music capitals. It continues to gain momentum in its recognition and abilities. I would like to see more avenues that help artists get recognized and marketed well. I’m excited to see more people looking into being managers and labels and I hope we can get more of these areas developed in Utah.
I would also love to see more collaboration involved in the scene. I started Utah Producers and Engineers Facebook group to help promote some of this collaboration between studios and engineers. I think it is has done some good, but I’d love to see the community come together even more and be able to strengthen each other with our unique talents and abilities. I believe that many musicians in Utah deserve to be in the spotlight.
Make sure to like Noisebox Studios on Facebook and check out the studio’s official website here. You can listen to “A Little Bit Of” by Mimi Knowles below. The song was recorded, mixed, and mastered at Noisebox Studios.